The Difference Between the 3 Types of Whey Protein: Concentrate, Isolate, & Hydrolysate

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Written by Carl Lombard

Whey protein is a valuable supplement to any fitness regiments, as it helps build and repair muscles and tissues after exercising. Whey protein is a water-soluble milk protein that offers all the essential amino acids that the body needs. In fact, it has been rated to have the highest Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid score (PDCAA)—indicating that is offers the most concentration of essential amino acids compared to its digestibility.

Whey protein is also a rich source of Branch Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs), which promote the synthesis of muscle protein. Because of the many positive bioactivities of these proteins, and its high concentration of vitamins and minerals, whey is commonly promoted in sports nutrition.

Whether you are trying to lean out while preserving muscle mass or bulk up, meeting your daily protein mark is important for the overall success of your health and fitness goals. When browsing through various protein options, it is important to be aware that there are three main forms of whey protein that offer varying advantages: concentrate, isolate, and hydrolysate.

This article will cover the basic science behind each formula and provide advice on which whey supplement may be best for your personal fitness goals.

Whey Concentrate

whey protein concentrateWhey protein concentrate is the least processed form of whey protein on the market. Following the removal of coagulation and curd in cheese manufacturing, whey protein is leftover in the form of a translucent milk product. From this liquid, the whey proteins are purified and separated to create the supplement. Whey concentrate undergoes minimal processing thereafter to remove some water, lactose, minerals, and ash, but compared isolate and hydrolysate, this is still the most untreated form of whey. In general, whey concentrate offers between 25-89% protein, 10-55% lactose, and 2-10% milk fat.

Advantages of Whey Concentrate?

Some of the greatest advantages of whey protein include its high concentration of biologically active ingredients, its general affordability, and better taste. Because whey concentrate undergoes minimal processing, it retains many of its biologically active ingredients and manufacturing costs can be kept down. Further, since whey concentrate has the highest concentration of milk and fats, many prefer the taste of this form of the supplement over that of whey protein isolate or hydrolysate.

Disadvantages of Whey Concentrate?

The biggest disadvantage of whey concentrate compared to the other forms of the supplement, is that it can be harder to digest, and may cause irritation—especially for those who are lactose intolerant. This form of the protein also takes the longest time to absorb and offers the lowest concentration of protein between the three forms.

NOTE: Most whey protein supplements are a combination of whey isolates and whey concentrate. Why? Because concentrates are cheaper. They basically use it as filler and add some isolates so they can market them. Either way, depending on the product you can still get a good quality protein within the blends, but it will probably come down to personal preference.

Whey Isolate 

whey protein isolateWhey Isolate is the purest source of whey protein, as it undergoes significantly more processing than whey concentrate to remove most lactose, fats, carbohydrates, and cholesterol. In fact, whey protein isolate consists of at least 90% protein, and less than 1% lactose and fats. This means that each dose of whey isolate offers more protein and fewer calories per dose, compared to whey concentrate.

Advantages of Whey Isolate?

Because most of the lactose is removed from whey isolate, users report far less digestive problems with this form of the protein compared to whey concentrate. Even those who are lactose intolerant can generally take this form of the supplement with virtually no discomfort, as the formula consists of only 0.5% lactose. Another advantage of whey isolate compared to concentrate is that you get more protein and fewer calories per serving.

Disadvantages of Whey Isolate?

Because whey isolate is a purer form than whey concentrate, the additional processing causes manufacturing costs to rise, making it more expensive (but still more affordable than hydrolysate). In addition, though this form of the protein can be digested faster than whey concentrate, it is still slower to digest than whey hydrolysate.

Hydrolyzed Whey (Hydrolysate)

optimum nutrition hydro wheyWhey hydrolysate is the most highly processed form of the protein currently available, and it is also the smallest and fastest to digest. Creating this form of the protein involves breaking down the formula by exposing the protein to high heat, enzymes, or acid that break apart the bonds connecting amino acids. By doing this, hydrolysed whey protein becomes the most easily digestible and fastest absorbing whey protein on the market.

Thinking of using a Hydrolyzed Whey? I reccomend Optimum Nutrition’s Hydro Whey.

Advantages of Whey Hydrolysate?

The process of creating whey protein hydrolysate breaks down the particulate size so that it is the easiest form of the protein to digest, and the fastest to absorb. In fact, whey hydrolysate is even used in baby formula because of its fast-acting power and lack of allergenic epitopes.

Disadvantages of Whey Hydrolysate?

Whey hydrolysate undergoes the most rigorous processing, causing it to lose some of the nutritional content found in concentrate and isolate. In addition, the processing method often makes the formula taste bitter—but this can be corrected with additives. This is also the most expensive form of whey protein available.

Whey Protein: Losing Weight vs Bulking

If pressed for a recommendation, I’d suggest that those trying to cut weight should stick to whey hydrolysate, while those trying to gain should consume a whey isolate or concentrate. Though whey concentrate generally tastes better and is more affordable, the other two forms may be more effective to reach fitness goals, as whey concentrate is slow to digest and offers a relatively low protein concentration.

In general, all three forms of whey are beneficial supplements that can help synthesize muscle protein and repair tissues, but depending on your personal fitness goals, one form may be the better catalyst for your success.

About the author

Carl Lombard


  • Whey concentrate can offer between 25 and 89% protein? That’s a huge difference. I mean, it’s one thing to get 25% and a totally different to get 80%+, right? I wonder how expensive the latter one is.

    Even if this absorbs the slowest, wouldn’t this be the best option because it is healthier (at least from what I can tell)? I’m not lactose intolerant so that wouldn’t be a problem. I’m looking to bulk up but not at the cost of my health so any advice is appreciated. Thanks!

    • So, when it comes down to it protein is protein. The percentage refers to how much protein is in the product vs other ingredients (lactose, fillers, etc.).
      If you get half as much protein per g, you just take twice as much. If you do the math on the cost per g you’ll be able to determine which protein option to go with.

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